Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This week the Northwest Film Forum is featuring The Woman Who Ran via streamable link; check that here.
In Hong Sang-soo’s movies the drama is frequently buried beneath ordinary conversation (mind you, there’s also blunt stuff that gets blurted out in drunken exchanges), so you have to be listening and watching to track what’s really going on—a watching practice that is a pleasure, not a task. In The Woman Who Ran, this rule is very much in play, and it begins with the title.
We watch three encounters; in each episode, a young married woman named Gam-hee (played by Hong regular Kim Min-hee) visits a female acquaintance. (“Friend” is not quite the right term.) As she explains at least once during each visit, Gam-hee has free time because her husband is out of town, and in the five years of their marriage she has not heretofore been apart from him, because of his questionable-sounding philosophy of togetherness. The way this story gets repeated makes it seem like more of a cry for help than a piece of background information.
This is, perhaps, where the title comes in. On the surface, we don’t see a woman on the run in this film; Gam-hee appears casual about her encounters. But with the title hanging there, we have to wonder: Is she running? Are these visits (each of which has a certain amount of unease baked in) actually a stab at escape? There’s nothing obvious that would tell us that, except for the title—and there it is.
The first episode takes place in the countryside, or at least a suburb, where a slightly older acquaintance (Seo Young-wha) lives in an apartment with a roommate who is very good at grilling meat. (Gam-hee has brought some meat for dinner, somewhat trampling on her host’s vegetarianism.) It’s hard to see the connection between Gam-hee and her friend, and indeed the woman gently wonders whether they were ever close at all. The second visit is in the apartment of another slightly older woman (Song Seon-mi), who is forgetful to the point of fatally overcooking dinner. The third encounter is apparently more accidental, but maybe not. Gam-hee stops in what appears to be a café/arts center, and runs into the woman (Kim Sae-Byuk) who married Gam-hee’s former flame after breaking up the relationship. He (Kwon Hae-hyo) is well-known author, currently giving a reading in an auditorium in that very building.
Toward the end of the film’s 77 minutes, Gam-hee will also have an encounter with him. This rounds off the movie’s appearances from men; they come across as entirely clueless and ineffectual—so marginal we barely see their faces. The film suggests this mise-en-scene is as much as they deserve.
And speaking of mise-en-scene, Hong favors longish two-shots, during which the “action” is punctuated by sudden zooms, which do not always seem motivated by heightened intimacy or drama. The zooms almost feel like Hong saying, “You expect something like this, right, to juice it up a little bit? Fine, here’s one of those. But just keep listening and watching.” And you do keep listening and watching, because this collection of mundane dialogue and interpersonal adjustments is completely beguiling. Like Gam-hee’s manner (Kim Min-hee is a master of body language, squinching her gangling frame into a variety of chairs and tables, as though nonverbally asking, “Do I belong here?”), this movie looks casual, but something urgent and human is at stake.
I won’t argue that Hong always succeeds with his methods (for more thoughts about this prolific director, see another Seasoned Ticket column: https://blog.scarecrow.com/the-seasoned-ticket-4/). For instance, his entry from this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Introduction, struck me as meat sliced too thin. But The Woman Who Ran, animated by the great delicacy of its performances, is cut just right.
July 16, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.